Having a purpose in life could make us happier. In turn, being happy could strengthen our purpose. Purpose is a meaningful life aim a person engages in intentionally that has a beyond-the-self-impact (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003). Purposeful people realize their actions make a difference in the world—in small as well as big ways. The strongest purposes focus on prosocial effects.
Happiness is a positive emotional state and a type of well-being (Anand, 2016; Diener, 2000). To be happy means to have a positive mindset, which in part can result from personal growth through the pursuit of meaningful life goals (Konow & Earley, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2001).
One of the founders of positive psychology, a branch of psychology focused on well-being, suggests that happiness is not solely a fleeting feeling derived from simple pleasures in the moment. Rather, happiness is associated with engaging in enjoyable pursuits, contributing to strong social relationships, and recognizing being part of something larger than oneself (Seligman, 2004)—all qualities related to life purpose (Moran, 2014).
Happiness and purpose may have a reciprocal relationship. Individuals who have a positive mindset and pursue meaningful life goals are more likely to behave in prosocial ways (Ryan & Deci, 2008). For example, a college student says: ““I am a strong advocate of helping others and improving my own life, as well as others’ lives, and this brings me happiness.” This statement emphasizes prosocial purposeful behavior leading to happiness.
Inversely, individuals who participate in prosocial behaviors are more likely to feel happier (Akin, Dunn & Norton, 2012). Another college student says: “As long as I am happy, I feel that I am fulfilling my life and making others happy too.” This second statement emphasizes feeling happy as an indicator of prosociality and life meaning.
Both statements support that purpose can be a key ingredient for happiness. A purpose focuses our attention, resources, and efforts on what we most care about and where we can do the most good (Moran, 2015). And finding happiness through finding purpose may reap more longer-term happiness than seeking happiness directly for its own sake (Kagan & Moran, 2016).
By Despoina Lioliou & Nainika Grover, Clark University, USA
Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 347-355.
Anand, P. (2016). Happiness explained. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.
Diener, E. (2000, January). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.
Kagan, R., & Moran, S. (2016). Happiness as a life goal (pp. 137-144). In S. Moran, Ethical ripples of creativity and innovation. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Konow, J., & Earley, J. (2008). The hedonistic paradox: Is homo-economicus happier? Journal of Public Economics, 92(1-2), 1-33.
Moran, S. (2014a, August). The purpose of purpose: Building life momentum. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, USA.
Moran, S. (2014b). Youth’s own understandings of purpose: Are there distinct “cultures of purpose”? Applied Developmental Science, 18(3), 1-13.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 142-166.
Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Can happiness be taught? Daedalus, 133(2), 80-87.